Israel remains safe despite strife


As Israeli air force reduced Hamas’ strength on the third day of its Gaza assault, striking next to the Hamas premier’s home, devastating a security compound and flattening a university building, the deadliest campaign against Palestinians in decades gets stronger by the hour. According to recent newswires, Israel’s defense minister said his military is fighting a “war to the bitter end against Hamas but is not fighting the residents of Gaza.”

Despite the mounting tension in Gaza, Israeli tourism experts believe nothing will hamper inbound trips already booked previously.

Speaking to the eTurbo News from his New York office, Arie Sommer, consul, Government of Israel, Ministry of Tourism and tourism commissioner for North & South America looks forward to a positive year-end statistics. He also allays fears of travellers. “What is happening is in an isolated area of Gaza. Tourists never go there. Gaza is not a tourist area. Nothing will therefore change our strategy. On the contrary, we plan to increase our advertising and marketing efforts due to excellent results in ‘07 and ‘08. 2008 is by far, the best year for Israel as we’ve received over 3 million tourists from all over the world and more than 600,000 from the US,” he said adding they’re encouraged to invest more resources in promoting tourism in 2009.

On safety and security, we asked whether the missiles fired by Hamas, as most news have mentioned, actually endanger Israel’s tourists. Sommer said from the geography itself, this is only happening in isolated locations. “Israel is safe. The country does not have any problem. All tourists are safe. And since we are a responsible country, we don’t need tourists when we have problems in the country. We don’t have any problems now; otherwise we would have to tell tourists not to travel only to jeopardize their security if there are indeed any problems,” he said.

“We don’t want tens upon thousands of visitors to get hurt,” he said confirming Hamas rockets do not reach any part of Israel at all.

The Israeli Consul confirmed they have not received any phone calls from any concerned tourist. There have been no cancellations likewise. He said most of the travelers understand the situation has not affected the country. Furthermore, there has been no tourist evacuation whatsoever as events are not taking anywhere in Israel except in Gaza, a non-tourist area. “Though Israel is a small country, none of the fighting has affected Israel. Everything’s normal. Hotel occupancies remain high. Over 70 airlines are flying into Tel Aviv to date,” said Sommer.

Proponent of Peace Through Tourism, Michael Stolowitzky, president and CEO, Ame rican Tourism Society, has developed a robust tourism business to Israel. “No itineraries go that way anyway. As long as it is a localized conflict in Gaza and does not spread all over, then it will not affect tourism. People who travel to Israel have booked their trips months ahead of time. They did not cancel due to this recent incident. As long as the international airlines are flying, business goes on. It’s not an all out war. It is a localized crisis,” he said.

But should people have concerns on traveling, Sommer recommended that they contact their nearest consular office.

“It is the pictures they show on the news that it is burning all over Israel. A few buildings in Gaza are on fire. People have learned to take things with a grain of salt. They’ve realized the media exaggerates the situation. That’s what sells newspapers and keeps up the ratings,” added Stolowitzky.

Giving the ATS CEO the benefit of the doubt, we asked a media expert on how skewed media reporting has marred the issue.

Featured in the Media Education Foundation documentary Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land, Dr. Robert W. Jensen, associate professor, University of Texas at Austin, School of Journalism said: “The coverage of the Israeli attack on Gaza has most of the problems the US media coverage on Israel-Palestine conflict has. It does not provide adequate context for US viewers and readers to understand the nature of the situation. This is an occupation that has been going on since 1967; an occupation that is illegal which involves a long-term Israeli project of acquiring land and resources from Palestine. If one does not understand contemporary events and history of it, it will be hard to make sense of it,” he said adding that US reporting seems to fall in-line with the way the US government constructs it – as an issue of Palestinian terrorism, a Palestinian resistance to Israeli attempts at peace.

“Certainly, Hamas has access to ammunitions and weapons and can inflict damage to Israeli military and the population. But the question is: what is the context in which that goes forward?” asked Jensen adding further, “Of course, the Palestinian people have the fundamental right to resist. But one needs to look at the context of where the overwhelming majority of the violence comes from? Which powers have the ability to control the situation?”

“If one only steps back and takes a look at the US being a partner of Israel in that occupation, then things start to look more different. This current attack on Gaza is so extreme, however, the level of violence against civilians is outrageous, that some US media are starting to pay more attention. This level of intense violence is too difficult to ignore. The problem is that even if it is covered now, it lacks the context that can help the American public understand it,” said Jensen.

“I hope this would end in a few days and things will return to normal,” said Sommer adding he expects travelers to enjoy the country and their experience.

Reporting from the war scene, volunteers, reporters and activists say Gaza is in a state of disaster as hours tick away…

Ewa Jasiewicz, Lubna Masarwa, Ramzi Kysia and Greta Berlin all work with the Free Gaza Movement, which sent a ship called the Dignity from Cyprus to
Gaza. The group states: “The ship is on an emergency mission carrying in physicians, human rights workers and over three tons of desperately needed medical supplies donated by the people of Cyprus. Coordinating with the Gaza Ministry of Health, the doctors will be immediately posted to overburdened hospitals and clinics upon their arrival.”

“The Free Gaza Movement sent two boats to Gaza in August 2008. These were the first international boats to land in the port in 41 years. Since August, four more voyages were successful, taking parliamentarians, human rights workers, physicians, and other dignitaries to witness the effects of Israel’s draconian policies on the civilians of Gaza,” added the Free Gaza team.

Nora Barrows-Friedman, Flashpoints Radio reporter, who has done extensive reporting on the Israeli-occupied territories, was last in Gaza in June. But she said today: “I’ve been on the phone much of the weekend doing interviews with people in Gaza. The people there are filled with panic
and terror — and this comes after a prolonged siege that deprives them of needed food, medicine, clean water, electricity — the basics of life.”

Justin Alexander, a Middle East analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit wrote the piece The Assault on Gaza Will Not Stop Rockets, but Could Influence the Israeli Elections. He said, “Israel’s past military responses to the rocket threat, although massively disproportionate, have … been largely ineffective. It demolished buildings and leveled large areas of farm land in the northern part of Gaza to reduce the cover available for rocket crews. It fired over 14,000 artillery shells in 2006, killing 59 Palestinian civilians in the process, in what was framed as a preventive tactic to
make it more difficult for rocket crews to operate.” It launched major and prolonged incursions such as Operation Summer Rains in June 2006, devastating infrastructure such as the Gaza power station and killing hundreds. But still rocket fire continued, and in fact intensified in response to any increases in Israeli hostilities, he said.

Alexander added, instead the only effective way of preventing rocket fire has been ceasefires, such as the one Hamas (but not other factions such as Islamic Jihad) observed from November 26th 2006 to April 24th 2007.